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A History of Success, A Future of Promise

Hall of Fame

Gary C. Burton

Innovative and Energetic Civil Servant

Like many community college students, in 1964 young Gary C. Burton wasn't sure where he was going or what he wanted to do with his life. He landed at Santa Ana College, where he received the direction that set him on the path to a challenging and fulfilling career in financial management. Gary's financial acumen and dedication to civil service, in fact, ultimately positioned him as a financial champion for both the County of Orange and the City of Irvine.  He also participated on the executive management teams which implemented the Clean Act in the 1980s and in the 1990s and the implementation of Orange County's Measure M program, which widened our freeways. 

In 1996, he served as Orange County's Chief Financial Officer and has been referred to as the architect of the county's recovery from bankruptcy. At that time, he remembers someone asking, "Gary, why would you take that job?" The prevailing view was that the County of Orange was sinking and its rescue would be nearly impossible. It took sophisticated financial wisdom, patience and creative thinking to design the plan that would successfully resurrect the county and ensure its ongoing stability. At the time, Gary thought to himself, the county only had one way to go, and that was up.

"Designing the strategic financial plan that the county uses and implementing it in 1997, it's a plan that they renew every year and to me was very significant. I had an opportunity there to restructure their debt, to actually reduce their debt with litigation proceeds." When he started working for the county in 1996, it was in default.  When he left in 2003, the county had an AA rating. A man who thrives on discovering and implementing innovative solutions to difficult challenges, he discovered that solving the county's bankruptcy woes was not the only time he would be called upon to clean up a financial mess.

Santa Ana College provided the foundation for Gary's studies at Cal State Long Beach where he earned a bachelor's degree and his long success in the public and private sectors. Both a certified public accountant and a certified government financial manager, during his long career he has worked for the Orange County Auditor Controller, South Coast Air Quality Management District as their first CFO , the Orange County Transportation Authority and the County of Orange. Now gradually easing into retirement, Gary is chief financial officer at J.R. Watson Development Corp.

An avid bicyclist for more than 50 years who still takes long-distance bike trips across the U.S. and Canada, Gary used to ride his bike to Santa Ana College and stash it in the back of whatever classroom he was in. "Most college students didn't ride bikes back then," he recalls. "I wasn't a great student, but I met some good friends and developed some discipline thanks to the direction I received there."

One of the instructors he remembers is Professor Jim Alverson, who taught law. "For about 10 years when I was working at the county I stayed in touch with him," Gary said. "He had a photographic memory and would ask everyone's name the first day of class. By the second day, he knew your name no matter where you were sitting."

Santa Ana College, he recalls, made him a more mature student with better study habits. "Santa Ana College helped me along the way. They were there when I needed them."

Interestingly, Gary's identical twin brother, Jim, also attended Santa Ana College and pursued a career in accounting and finance. Today Jim is on the faculty at the University of Redlands and a former controller for Parker Hannifin.

Just as Gary was tasked with designing the County of Orange's recovery from bankruptcy in the 1990s, he was called upon again at the end of his career in the public sector to create an ingenious, yet straightforward plan to pay down the City of Irvine's unfunded pension liability early. He was the city's director of administrative services, a position he held for three years, and his last project involved utilizing the city's asset management plan funds to create the plan to pay down Irvine's unfunded pension liability early. Previously he put the community facilities district together for the Great Park, a complex task that involved the development agreement with Heritage Fields but ultimately will finance the backbone infrastructure for the area.

He has been recognized with a commendation from the City of Irvine in 2013, a resolution by the Orange County Transportation Authority in 1996, a resolution by the County of Orange in 2003, a declaration by the City of Anaheim in 2003, and a commendation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in 2003. He has been honored by the Orange County Deputy Sheriff Association, the Orange County Sheriff and the Huntington Beach City School District. A U.S. Army veteran, Gary has been honored by the United States Army Medical Command, Europe.

He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Orange County Credit Union and is on the treasury oversight committee of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. He has served in the past as a trustee for the Orange County Girl Scout Council, serves on the Citizens Oversight Committee for the Huntington Beach Union High School District, and is treasurer of his church.

Gary and his wife Ellen live in Huntington Beach. He has a daughter, Cynthia, and two stepsons, James and Steven. Gary and Ellen are avid travelers who have recently visited Sicily, Peru, Costa Rica, Hawaii, China, Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Tanzania, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia and the Netherlands. Gary is an avid runner who recently won his age group in Disneyland's half-marathon.